Just a brief post to say hi. I’m back home and trying to catch up on all the wonderful posts you, my friends, have produced while I was away. I had a whirlwind trip, but managed to get in a couple of hours of hiking on Saturday in the Timucuan Ecological & Historical Preserve along the St. John’s River in North Florida.
This huge and very interesting preserve represents one of the last unspoiled coastal wetlands on the Atlantic Coast. It would have required at least a full day or two to properly experience the beauty of its salt marshes, coastal dunes, and hardwood hammocks.
And to explore 6000 years of human history within it boundaries. This preserve marks the place where one of the Timucuan tribes met the first French explorers in 1562. Sadly, this meeting, and the French and Spanish settlers that soon followed, represented the beginning of the end of the longstanding Timucuan culture.
The preserve also houses an exhibit of Fort Carolina originally built by the first French settlers on the river bank.
We didn’t have the time to reach the wetlands where I could have found birds to “shoot”, but I could hear them everywhere in the jungle-like forest.
The only bird I managed to capture on this short hike was a Turkey Vulture who enjoyed the winds above the river.
Stopping along the river we spotted several schools of dolphins, most of them too far out for me to get a picture.
The preserve also has ongoing ecological research projects in the many different types of habitats it houses. We stumbled upon one of the vegetation projects on our hike through the maritime hammock.
It was a compact hike, but gave me a taste of what this preserve has to offer. I hope to return one day with better time to explore the beauty of its habitats, and its birds, properly.
I hope your week is going great. Get out and enjoy nature! Tiny – here leaning on a “twin” tree in the hardwood hammock.
I originally wrote this article for Bucketlistpublications.com where it was published on January 13. It’s a little different from my usual posts, but I have edited it slightly and added many more pictures for your enjoyment. See you in Florida soon 😉 Tiny
After having lived on three continents, and traveled the world for more than two decades for work and pleasure, I finally found my own little piece of paradise here on Sand Key, a barrier island on Florida’s beautiful Gulf Coast.
Don’t get me wrong, I still travel, but I no longer feel I have to get away. Simply because there’s so much to explore right here in my backyard. Outdoor activities for every taste, every age and ability.
I’m not going to tell you about all the excellent hotels, restaurants and bars that cater for visitors here. There’s an app or two for that. Instead, I’ve chosen to talk about a few activities and adventures for those who want an active, outdoorsy vacation.
Beaches. Beaches are of course the main attraction around here. Clearwater Beach offers everything beachgoers could ask for, a beautiful beach and lots of water related activities at the marina across the road – and throngs of company. Shopping and activities on Pier 60 every night at sunset, and lots of watering holes nearby.
For those who prefer a bit more quiet and space for their beach day, or maybe want to catch a fresh grouper for dinner, the Sand Key Park and beach just over the bridge from Clearwater Beach, will be ideal. It has all the necessary amenities, including food at nearby establishments.
Water sports. Jet skiing is probably the most popular water sport among visitors, and is available both on Clearwater Beach and on Sand key.
Kayaking, sailing and paddle boarding are available at the Community Sailing Center just opposite the Sand Key Park and the beach. They also offer summer camps and instructional courses where you can learn the basics of sailing or paddle boarding.
Kite surfing is popular on Sand Key when the winds are right. Parasailing and “sky-surfing” are also on offer for those who have a higher calling, or just seek the big picture.
Excursions on the water. Clearwater Beach marina is a busy place. That’s where you can book trips on the water. Again, the items on the menu are many. Anything from a Pirate Ship rides with kids, to dolphin tours, dinner cruises or sunset sails. Going slow or fast. Your choice.
But I’d like to mention one particular experience that all my guests regardless of age have loved, Captain Mike’s Dreamcatcher Explorations. Most tours (private or split between 5-6 people) go to the Three Rooker Bar, a small Barrier Island.
There is no better way to spend a morning or an afternoon. You can do tube riding and dolphin watching on your way there, fantastic shelling and snorkeling once you reach the island. It’s an untouched paradise, and if you’re lucky a dolphin might come to swim with you there.
Three Rooker Bar is also a protected nature preserve, which brings me to my final theme.
Wildlife and hiking.Many visitors enjoy the birds found on Florida shores. And you can watch/photograph many species right in the salt marsh of Sand Key Park, on the beach and on the bay side. I’ve photographed at least 40 different species there, maybe around 10-15 on any given day.
If you want to experience untouched Florida nature and are up for a hike, then I can recommend a visit to Honeymoon Island about 30 minutes north of Clearwater.
And if you are up for a really long hike and the weather is nice, you can walk to Caldesi, a pristine barrier island, on a sand bar all the way from Clearwater. Those who want to just enjoy the beach or hike the nature trail can also reach Caldesi Island by boat from Honeymoon Island.
Other nature related adventures are offered by Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is the home of Winter, the dolphin from two movies, Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2. The Aquarium, which is actually a hospital and rehabilitation center for marine animals, also offers excursions on the bay to examine the interesting marine life there.
Here’s to an outdoorsy vacation in the Clearwater area!
One morning at the end of January, I set out with a friend just after sunrise. She had agreed to join me for a hike on Caladesi Island, one of the few remaining pristine barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico, situated a mile and a half off shore from the city of Dunedin, FL.
It was called Hog Island until 1921 when a major hurricane split it into two separate islands. The Hurricane Pass was formed. The northernmost island became known as Honeymoon Island after becoming popular with honeymooners in late 1930s. The southern island got its name, or so the story goes, after a Spaniard named “Desi” said to have lived on the island bayou, which is “cala” in Spanish. Caladesi.
Caladesi Island, now a state park, was “discovered” in 1888 by a Swiss immigrant, Henry Scharrer, who became the first and only homesteader ever on the island. His daughter, Myrtle, who was born there in 1895, has written an interesting book, “Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise – The Story of Caladesi Island”, first published in 1984.
In the book, she gives a timeline of the area’s early history involving the Tocobaga, Seminole and Miccosukee people, and the Spanish – English – Spanish rule until the Florida territory was acquired by the U.S. in 1821. She also describes her family’s life on the island in late 1800s and early 1900s in vivid color and fascinating detail.
We started our trip by driving to Honeymoon Island. From there we took the first boat of the day over to Caladesi. The air was cool. The ocean was completely still. A light mist was rising from the water as the sun slowly climbed higher.
Suddenly we spotted some movement in the water. It was a bottlenose dolphin on a morning swim in the sparkling ocean.
A few minutes later we passed the northernmost tip of Caladesi Island. White sand, shore birds … and more dolphins, all swept in the soft blue of the morning.
We watched them quietly for a while – and got another delightful surprise. A mother dolphin with a baby beside her “floated” by on the other side of the boat. They might have been sleeping. It certainly was a dream-like moment. Dolphins are such enchanting beings, meeting so many of them first thing in the morning was a treat. The universe was smiling.
The boat ride was short, about 20 minutes, and soon we started to navigate our way into the marina, the only establishment on the island. I was excited to finally experience the beauty of the island I had read so much about.
The island is about six miles (9.6 km) long. We decided to start by walking south on the beach, and then hike the 3-mile (4.8 km) nature trail in the interior of the island. The beach was pristine, so beautiful I could have walked there for the whole length of the island!
But we wanted to see more. I knew that unlike Honeymoon Island, this was not a place where I could spot lots of birds inland, but I anticipated that the nature itself would be breathtaking. And it was, Florida in its natural state, as it used to be.
The trail passed through beautiful old pine, oak and palm forests. And soon we came across the beautiful waterway along which one could reach the interior of the island by kayak.
When we came closer to the former homestead, we found the only fresh water pond on the island. That’s where Myrtle and her family got their water for daily use. Trees were bending over the pond, as if protecting it from the passage of time. And silence… was breathing in mesmerizing colors.
Fairly close to the pond, we literally stumbled upon the famous “Harp Tree” or twin pine as it’s also called. Numerous photos were taken there, and are exhibited in the book, by early photographers who came to the island to visit Myrtle’s family.
It was a beautiful spot. I could feel the wing beats of history in the air. It was easy to imagine how life used to be there a hundred years ago, and how exciting photography had to be for these early pioneers. There would always be someone willing to climb up to be pictured sitting in the Harp Tree.
Then the trail turned back towards north and the harbor. We were admiring the old trees when we heard some rustling in the bushes next to the trail. We stopped, looked carefully, and saw a nine banded armadillo trying to dig a hole in the ground, either to find food or to prepare a new burrow. His head was already far down there, and he was working hard.
The last part of the trail was equally beautiful. I felt like I’d been thrown back in time. A harsh time in many ways, but much more simple and peaceful in this island paradise.
The tranquility of Caladesi Island was tangible. Being dipped so deep into untouched nature was inspirational and soothing for the soul. Like coming back to my real origins.
On the weekend between Christmas and New Year, I decided I had to get moving. I mean really moving. An hour of jogging around the salt marsh nearby just wouldn’t cut it. So I decided to go hiking on Honeymoon Island.
This beautiful island in the Gulf of Mexico was used as a hog farm by early settlers, and consequently it was called Hog Island. But when a developer from New York bought the island in 1930s, and built 50 palm thatched huts for honeymooners, it became known as Honeymoon Island.
In 1939 the developer held a competition for newlyweds, featured in the LIFE magazine, and the winners were flown onto the island for a their two-week honeymoon.
Today the island is a beautiful state park with gorgeous beaches and nature trails, and you can reach it by car on a causeway from the city of Dunedin. I drove there right after sunrise that Sunday, and started off on the Osprey Trail. The natural beauty of the virgin slash pine forest was breathtaking.
Right away I saw Ospreys. Some were flying and others were just hanging around, many perching on dead tree trunks close to their nests. I guess they were waiting for their mate to arrive and the nesting season to start.
All my pictures are shot from the trail. It was not advisable to walk deeper into the forest trying to get a clear shot or a close-up . Why not? Simply because I didn’t have any desire to “shoot” the rattle snakes who also live on the island. Here are a few Ospreys out of the over 20 that I spotted that day on the Osprey Trail.
I have also prepared a small gallery of the numerous osprey nests I spotted along the trail. I thought some of them were true masterpieces showing off the nest-building capabilities of these birds. Like a Home Show.
I spotted a couple of Woodpeckers too, but couldn’t get close enough for a clear shot. Great Egrets liked to sit on the top of the tall trees and trunks, beautiful against the blue skies.
And I spotted a bird I had not seen before, an American Black Vulture. He was sitting in deep thought and nodded off a couple of times while I was observing him.
It was a peaceful hike. No manmade noises in the cool winter air. I was alone in the nature with the birds that morning.
I wanted to hike back on the Pelican Cove Trail. It was beautiful too and took me to the northwestern side of the island where a small lagoon has formed between the main island and the “sand spit”. I didn’t see any Pelicans, but many other birds were wading on the “sand spit” side of the lagoon. The “sand spit” doesn’t have trails, but one can walk on the sandy beach to the north end of it to see tidal pools that tend to form there. I plan to do just that … next time.
I stood there for quite a while inhaling the serenity and admiring the view of the calm Gulf of Mexico. Silence swept its arms around me and I lost the sense of time. Food for the soul, nature immersion at it best.
On my way back I spotted an Osprey fairly close to the trail. She had just caught a big fish for late lunch or afternoon snack. And was not happy to see me approaching on the trail.
My last discovery that day was a colony of fiddler crabs who had taken over the sandy trail. The sand was full of little “doors” to their dwellings. They were happily running back and forth conducting their business when I approached. But as soon as they felt the tremors from my tiptoeing feet, they hurried inside. I was free to pass their village.
It was a great hike! All my moving parts felt it for a couple of days. My soul still feels it.
I hope you enjoyed the trip and are not too tired from the long hike. Thanks for coming along!